In the decades since its release, the July 1961 issue of Playboy Magazine has become somewhat of a collectible. The reason driving its covetable status is probably not what you think. It's a spread not of nudity but rather one titled "Designs For Living," which featured designers behind some of the era's most forward-looking furniture. Charles Eames, George Nelson, and Harry Bertoia were among the group photographed—and of course, their chairs: Eames Lounge Chair, George Nelson Coconut Chair, and Harry Bertoia Diamond Chair.
“Exuberance, finesse, and high imagination characterize U.S. furniture design today,” the article begins. What follows is an academic exploration of New American design ethos, bobbing and weaving from Bauhaus traditions to the modern art movement along the way. Little is mentioned with how owning great furniture might help become more of a Playboy-esque man about town. It was a feature written, quite sharply, through the lens of design and culture. Other big-name furniture shows up across the feature: from Hans Wegner, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Paul McCobb, among others.
This type of spread was not a rare occurrence. There was a late-1960s issue that featured an editorial of modern lighting, including works by Italian designers like Giancarlo Mattioli and Achille Castiglioni. A recurring column called “A Playboy Pad” was basically a celebration of sleek architecture and masculine interior design. Some of the homes featured were downright eccentric, like Chip Lord’s Ant Farm, a space-age compound in Texas while others skewed more cosmopolitan, like a SoHo loft with levels and levels of flooring. The John Lautner-designed Elrod House in Palms Springs was also covered. Almost all of the homes featured within the column offered a taste of what the lavish home of a high-taste Playboy man should look like.
Looking back, Playboy was obsessed with all things "Modern." (In fact, the magazine seemed to love that word.) The very first issue contained a piece on "Desk Design For The Modern Executive." A reoccurring column titled "Modern Living" spotlighted the latest in home decor and furnishings. Occasionally, the magazine would take things one step further, offering informative guides on how men could improve their spaces. The quintessential "Playboy Bedroom" was presented in one issue: it contained a lounging area with Eero Saarinen's groundbreaking womb chair, a glass-and-wood coffee table designed by Isamu Noguchi, and a cowhide-covered Eames LCW chair.
Over a decade ago, Professor Beatriz Colomina and Princeton School of Architecture put together a research project entitled Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979. It proposed that Playboy played a crucial yet relatively unacknowledged role in cultivating design culture in America by embracing cutting-edge designers and introducing their work to millions of readers. The research found that Playboy was ahead of other popular magazines when it came to promoting modern architecture and design. Colomina's project was eventually turned into an exhibit at the Elmhurst Art Museum.
It's not a stretch to say the magazine ushered in the archetypal bachelor pad. And not everything that Playboy promoted was a winner. There was plenty good—the Noguchi tables and the Eames chairs—and some less noble design choices: mirrors on the ceiling, rotating bed frames, and otherwise shagadelic seating. Yet, there is no question the attention Playboy gave to design and furniture heavily shaped the aesthetic decisions of heterosexual American men during the 1960s and 1970s. (Today, the magazine is a shell of its former self, but the title hit peak circulation and influence in 1975 when an average issue sold 5.6 million copies.)
The late Hugh Hefner had an uncanny ability to craft stories and visuals that played into conscious and subconscious male desire. Playboy was undoubtedly one of the first mid-century tastemakers that helped weave modernism into the fabric of America. Seven decades have passed since that first issue, and many things about the magazine have not aged well—the furniture isn't one of them.